Environmental Stewardship Up Close and Personal

By Todd Sprague

Bob Steelquist ’85, MES ’94 and Carla Stehr ’75 have spent decades exploring the intersections of people and place in the Puget Sound region.

Carla Stehr

Carla Stehr in her studio. Stehr has translated many black-and- white SEM images from her work into colorful quilted fabric creations.

Photos by Shauna Bittle ’98.

Each has found ways to connect others more personally with the environment around them: Steelquist through words, experiences, and cultural exploration, and Stehr by revealing the unseen intricacies, beauty, and fragility of marine life through powerful electron microscopes and, ultimately, art.

While both had long careers with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), each forged a unique path to environmental education and stewardship.

Connecting Science with Art

Samples of Carla Stehr’s work

Though retired now, Carla Stehr devoted her career as a fisheries biologist and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) expert to understanding the environmental impacts of pollution, particularly in Puget Sound. SEM uses electrons to create incredibly detailed, 3-D images of surfaces, at up to 300,000x magnification.

“At first we looked at the effects of oil spills on marine life, but over time the priorities shifted, as we learned more, to include pesticides, PCBs, flame retardants, estrogenic compounds, and the cumulative, synergistic effects of those,” she explained.

Stehr got her start in research—and SEM—at Evergreen.

“Almost all of my Evergreen programs had some research project,” she explained. “So I got lots of experience from writing a proposal, to collecting and analyzing data, to writing reports and making oral presentations. That gave me a head start once I got hired as a biologist. I didn’t realize it was a big deal until people at work said, ‘Wow, you know how to do this already.’”

She first used a scanning electron microscope as an undergraduate at Evergreen and learned more in an internship at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (though she wasn’t allowed to touch the microscope there). While she was not an expert then, her familiarity with SEM came in handy when she applied for and got a job in NOAA’s newly established electron microscopy lab at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. She worked there the rest of her career.

Stehr was captivated from the outset by the “amazingly beautiful” SEM images. Over time, she learned that she could combine knowledge of the organism with a “very cool shot” by adjusting angles or settings to achieve the best image. That fed her creative spirit, but the audience, mostly scientists reading research papers, was small.

For Stehr, getting more people interested in science, nature, and the environment meant sharing her SEM images beyond the confines of scientific journals. That led to the Sea Unseen project; a book and museum exhibit featuring and explaining microscopic images of marine life. “The book was kind of a summary of my whole career,” she explained.

Stehr and other NOAA scientists found that the SEM images had an immediate impact on teaching and education. So during her last few years at NOAA, she developed the book as a way to share the most artful and informative SEM images that had been photographed throughout her career.

It was fun to watch people looking at the Sea Unseen exhibit at the Seattle Aquarium saying, ‘Wow that’s really cool!’ and wanting to know more about the organisms. The aquarium said it was the best exhibit they’d done that connected art with science. I felt really good about that.”

During a period of her career when her microscopy work was in a lull, Stehr began taking classes in drawing and illustration to feed her need for a creative outlet. She eventually started designing and making art quilts and asked, “What would happen if I tried using interesting SEM images in my art quilts?” So fabric became another medium for sharing her images with a wider audience. Her award-winning work has been displayed around the region and beyond. “The beauty of marine life and wanting to learn more about it led me into science, and that continues in my art.”

Watch this short video about Carla’s work, including an explanation of our cover image.

Advocating for the Olympic Peninsula

For Steelquist, environmental education starts with learning whateach person values. “We find ways to identify how people value the ocean and the coast environment and develop with them a relationship of information, knowledge, and action that helps them be engaged citizens,” he said. “The goal is to uncover the personal motivations to not just enjoy the places, but commit themselves to some stewardship of those places.”

Bob Steelquist

Bob Steelquist (’85, MES ’94) near his home in Sequim, Wash. He believes that a personal connection to place is the strongest foundation for environmental education and action.

Steelquist served as the education coordinator for the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, a NOAA agency, from 1994 until his retirement this year. Prior to that, he worked for a number of other environmentally focused agencies and organizations and as a freelance writer and journalist. He has authored 12 books on the environment and natural history.

For the past six years, Steelquist also oversaw NOAA’s Pacific Northwest Bay-Watershed Education and Training Program. “The program gets kids outdoors with inquiry-based science and helps teachers become more comfortable teaching in an outdoor setting.

“I really think it’s important to use learning to validate and supplement our experiences in the world,” Steelquist said. “If we’re curious, our experience leads us to questions and that leads us to ways to answer questions. I love seeing that ember that begins to glow, that becomes a flame, and that becomes our learning process.

“One of the things Evergreen validated in my life, enabled and proved, is that we’re ultimately in charge of our own education.

We are the designers of our learning and the beneficiaries. Evergreen allowed me to map a course that was very personal and very powerfully driven by my own outlook…Evergreen let me invent the core curriculum that would become my life.”

Where does he feel he’s made the most impact in his career? “Here on the [Olympic] Peninsula,” he answered without hesitation. “I’ve been most effective in learning this place, advocating for this place, and understanding these communities of people at very subtle levels. The key piece for me was really settling the question of where I was going to spend my life early on, then making my life a deep, deep expression of commitment to this place.”

As an example of that commitment, Steelquist developed a keen interest and growing expertise in cultural resource management. Through his work, he helped broaden the traditional view from looking at prehistoric Native American sites as collections of artifacts to thinking of them as threads in a fabric of life. Working with West Coast tribes, including the Makah, Steelquist encouraged colleagues to take “a new look at tribal cultural landscapes, the cumulative story of related locations and places that may be of interest for archaeology or history and looking at a whole cognitive map of a community…How did they define the world and the important things in that world? I believe this is a model of a learning process that can lead us to sustainability.

“It’s been gratifying to challenge and expand the status quo of how we value and understand these places and experiences,” he said.

And the places are better for it.